Thursday, July 2, 2015

Program to save endangered red #wolf suspended

June 30, 2015

The federal government will halt temporarily its effort to restore red wolves to the wilds of North Carolina as it studies whether to permanently shut down the program or whether to continue the initiative with additional sites in states such as South Carolina.

Tuesday’s decision not to release any more red wolves on a government preserve in North Carolina raises serious questions about the future of the program, which has irked some private landowners who don’t want wolves wandering onto their property. In some cases, property owners have shot red wolves in North Carolina, including one this summer.

For now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it will continue to manage the existing wild population of 50-75 wolves at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge as the agency studies the program’s future during the next six months.

The service would then make a decision on continuing the program.

Among the questions the service hopes to answer in the study is whether the species can realistically recover in the wild, and if so, where that would be. Opposition from landowners, who fear the wolves are dangerous, and the tendency of red wolves to interbreed with coyotes will be examined.

The red wolf recovery program was a landmark attempt to reintroduce animals that had gone extinct in the wild. But Cindy Dohner, the service’s regional director, acknowledged that shuttering the program and letting the species again go extinct in the wild is “one of many possibilities.’’

Red wolves, smaller than gray wolves but larger than coyotes, are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. No more than 300 survive in the world today, fewer than one third of which are at the Alligator River refuge in northeastern North Carolina.

All others are in captivity in zoos and in places such as the Sewee Visitors Center in Charleston County.

Some conservationists said Tuesday they weren’t happy with the decision to temporarily suspend the red wolf release program in North Carolina. “It is (the Fish and Wildlife Service’s) job to promote recovery of red wolves under the Endangered Species Act,’’ said Tara Zuardo, wildlife attorney with the Animal Welfare Institute. “By stifling the program, they are instead encouraging the species to go extinct and not fulfilling the mandate of the ESA.”

Service officials declined to say whether South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest – mentioned in the past as another site for red wolf releases – is a possibility to supplement or replace Alligator River if the program continues. Initially, the service planned to release red wolves in three different areas of the East.

The service said in a news release that its review would look at whether “there are geographical areas within the species’ historical range that are suitable to serve as core red wolf population sites; if there are suitable geographical areas, (and) whether there is sufficient public and state support in each of those areas to establish three core red wolf populations.’’’

Dohner said no new territories would be established without extensive public discussion.
“At this point, we don’t know’’ about additional sites, she said. “Any new sites, we would have a very open, public process.’’

Service officials said one of the most important issues that needs more study is the tendency of red wolves and coyotes to interbreed. If red wolves breed routinely with coyotes, it would destroy the species through genetics. Some scientists say red wolves won’t breed with coyotes if the wolf population is abundant enough.

The service also will look again at whether the red wolf is a distinct species. Some say the wolf already is a hybrid of past mating between coyotes and wolves.

Dating to the late 1980s, the red wolf recovery program has a connection to South Carolina. The service for years kept a breeding pair of red wolves on Bulls Island north of Charleston, then sent the pups the pair produced to Alligator River for eventual release into the wild. All told, 26 pups were born at Bulls Island before the program ended about a decade ago.

The South Carolina part of the program was vital in helping to re-establish the species in North Carolina. Today, a handful of red wolves are on display at the Sewee center that serves the Francis Marion National Forest and adjacent Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in northern Charleston County. A pair successfully produced pups at the Sewee center last year.